We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Evangelical Spirituality & the Saving of Liberal Christianity

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, columnist Ross Douthat wrestles with the question, "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?"  Focusing on the Episcopal Church, Douthat describes two parallel trends that seem to be connected.  On the one hand, the denomination has become increasingly liberal.  On the other hand, it is in steep institutional decline.  He observes that among Catholics as well as Protestant, liberal Christianity is failing to maintain the health and vigor of liberal religious institutions.  Douthat also cautions religious conservatives that they should not take any pleasure in the accelerating decline of progressive Christianity.  For one thing, conservative churches are seeing their own decline, and for another the liberal social gospel has made an important contribution to the life of the nation. He concludes, "No one should wish for its extinction, or for a world where Christianity becomes the exclusive property of the political right."  Douthat argues that either the Episcopal Church and like minded denominations such as the Presbyterian Church (USA) recapture some of the vitality of Protestant liberalism of an earlier era or they will continue to change and change and die.

In a sense, there is nothing new here, but in another sense Douthat's ruminations on the state and fate of the mainline churches demonstrates how important their decline is to American society generally.  Indeed, something important is being lost with the increasing loss of the social gospel churches.  Indeed, it is tragic to think that American Protestantism will fall entirely into the hands of the right wing.

Douthat's piece contains a hint of a hint at "the way out," which seems to be a return to the liberalism of an earlier time.  He cites a much longer article by Gary Dorrien entitled, "American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, Decline, Renewal, Ambiguity," which makes the case that a vital liberal theology was once based on a more warmly spiritual and personal liberal Christian faith.  In his article, Dorrien writes,
To put it bluntly, liberal theology has broken beyond its academic base only when it speaks with spiritual conviction about God's holy and gracious presence, the way of Christ, and the transformative mission of Christianity. That is not how a great deal of liberal theology has spoken over the past generation, to the detriment of liberal theology as a whole. In the past a spiritually vital evangelical liberalism sustained religious communities that supported the entire liberal movement. What would the social gospel movement have been without its gospel-centered preaching and theology? What would the Civil Rights movement have been without its gospel-centered belief in the sacredness of personality and the divine good?
I added the italics to "evangelical liberalism" to call attention to a growing personal conviction, namely mainline churches in decline can maintain and regain vitality only as they rediscover a vital spirituality that is lacking in most of them.  Liberal Christianity reflects the person of Christ, but somewhere along the line in all of the change we have flung ourselves into as liberal Christians we have lost a spiritual vitality.  We have lost our strand of the evangelical heritage, one that goes back to abolitionism and the emergence of settlement houses and urban ministry.  I should add that this idea of recapturing a liberal evangelicalism is not in any means original with me; it is something I've been learning from others over the last couple of years.

Evangelical liberalism - a thought worth thinking about.

(Interestingly enough, I found the illustration for this posting, above, at a blog named Living Wittily where it illustrates a brief piece entitled, "Being an Ecumenical Evangelical.")